Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 11. Nr. Dezember 2001

Swahili Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Factors of Its Development and Expansion

John C. Ogwana (Yaounde)


As Wilfred Whiteley points out (1969), the first concrete signs of Swahili speakers date back to 1100 A D. By then, Swahili was the language of a few thousand speakers located in a string of settlements along the East African coast of the Indian Ocean, stretching from present-day Somalia in the North to present-day Mozambique in the South, (see map p. 10). By 1900 AD. Swahili speakers could be found scattered all over Eastern Africa in settlements as far inland as present-day Lubumbashi, Bukavu and Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo (see map). By 1965 Swahili was the only African language that could be used in any town or city in all of the East African states. Today, at the start of the 21st century, Swahili is used on a daily basis by over a hundred million people either as a first, second or foreign language in Eastern Africa. Politically, this region includes entirely or partially at least 14 countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (D.R.), Zambia, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Somalia and Sudan.

The development and expansion of a language do not take place in a vacuum. We would like to examine some of the favorable as well as unfavorable factors that may have determined the development and expansion of Swahili, an expansion that no other African language has yet attained. But since linguistic development is basically chronological, we prefer to examine the above mentioned factors in the form of four consecutive though related phases which constitute the pre-colonial period:

(900-1900 AD), the colonial period (1900-1965 AD), the post-independence period (1965 - 2000 AD) and the future period (2000 - ... AD). These phases are closely interrelated in the sense that several factors which characterize a given phase are likely to be valid for the consecutive phases.


A. Swahili during the Precolonial Period (900 - 1900 AD)

In this section I will discuss three factors that favored the development and expansion of Swahili and three factors that blocked this expansion in certain areas.

The three favorable factors were the presence of a common external dominating language, Arabic, the high degree of similarity among the Bantu languages of the area and the linguistic diversity which prevented interethnic communication. Among the unfavorable or hostile factors, we should mention the presence of large and powerful quasi-monolingual empires and kingdoms, the association of Swahili with slavery and Islam and the Christian evangelization approach of using tribal languages both in schools and churches.

Arabic was so instrumental in the "birth" of Swahili that many non-linguists at one moment wanted to class it as a dialect of Arabic. The truth is that the various Arab trading posts attracted several speakers of different but related Bantu languages. These Bantu speakers could not communicate using a specific Bantu language, but they all needed basic rudiments of Arabic lexis to carry out commercial transactions. This situation led to the development of a lingua franca around each Arab trading post. But since, on one hand, the various Bantu languages demonstrated a high degree of lexical and morphosyntactic similarities, and, on the other hand, all these speakers interacted with one and the same common external language, Arabic, the resulting lingua franca in the various settlements, ended up by becoming mere dialects of a new language spoken by the coastal inhabitants - Swahili.

N.B.: Sahil in Arabic = coast.

For a period of over 400 years there was a succession of ruling dynasties within the East-African coastal region, dynasties that used Swahili as the main language.

Despite a considerable number of Arabic lexical items, Swahili was fundamentally a Bantu language both in morphosyntax and vocabulary. Even the Arab words took up Bantu morphological derivatives. Hence, when Swahili started spreading to the interior of the continent, the Bantu speakers in the Zambia, the Congo and the Nile bassin did not find the language very strange. Most basic lexical items were very similar across all of these languages, including Swahili.


Zone Zambezi basin Nile basin Congo basin Swahili
Water àmànzi àmàzzi àmaààzi Maji
Tree     Omuti mti
House   ènyuàmbà Ènyùmba nyumba

The fact that there was no mutual comprehension between the various ethnic groups despite their linguistic similarity made Swahili a welcome tool for intertribal interaction. Each tribe found the other tribe's language too complicated. They all found Swahili much more acceptable for two main reasons:

Firstly, Swahili was identified with no known ethnic group; so it was everybody's language.

Secondly, since Swahili developed as a business language, the Bantu grammar was simplified. Tones disappeared and noun classes were reduced to about half of what is found in other Bantu languages of the region.

These two factors made Swahili easy to master by non-Bantu speakers. Hence, linguistic diversity characterizing both Bantu and non-Bantu languages facilitated the learning and spreading of Swahili. This is why all the Arab, German, British and French explorers, traders and missionaries found it relatively easy to learn Swahili in Zanzibar, to recruit porters and assistants who easily learned Swahili before carrying it into the interior of the continent, despite some obstacles.

The first obstacle to the spread of Swahili was the existence of powerful monolingual empires and kingdoms. The most striking examples are those of the Masaï, the Akamba and the Luo in Kenya as well as the Buganda and the Buyoro in Uganda. The rulers of these areas did not accept any Arab influence among their subjects. In all of these areas only the local ethnic language was respected, and it was sufficient since it was spoken over large areas.

The second obstacle to the expansion of Swahili was the association of Swahili with Islam and the slave trade. For the rulers of these kingdoms of the Great Lakes region, Islam was introducing new religious ideas contrary to the traditional religions. Moreover, the Arabs were not only bringing new articles to sell, they were creating civil wars so as to get slaves to sell in the coastal towns. Millions of black slaves were taken to Zanzibar to be sold to both Arab and European slave dealers. This activity led many rulers to associate Swahili with slavery. The Kabaki, (King) of Buganda rejected Swahili in Buganda because "it was considered to be the language of slaves".

The third obstacle to the spread of Swahili was the language policy of the Christian missionaries. Whenever they could choose between Swahili and a local tribal language for evangelization and education, they always preferred the local language. These local languages were developed to compete with Swahili, a move which further strengthened the anti-Swahili attitude in the highly christianized kingdoms of the Great Lakes region.


B. Swahili during the colonial period (1900 - 1965)

In this section we will examine three factors that favored the expansion of Swahili: the creation of a colonial police and army, the construction of the East-African railway network as well as an industrialization and urbanization of the Great Lakes region. But we shall also look at two unfavorable factors: the British colonial policy of Indirect Rule and the privileged status accorded to English and French.

When the European colonial administration of East-Africa began after 1900 AD - by the Germans in Tanganyika and Rwanda-Burundi, by the British in Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar and Somali land and by the Belgians in the Congo - one thing was obvious: the need of an obedient colonial law enforcement body. In most cases this body was to be dominated by police agents and soldiers. In all of these territories, the language chosen was Swahili, irrespective of its varying dialects. This was an attractive job, and it made many Africans accept to learn Swahili so as to be recruited. And since all the law enforcement personnel spoke Swahili, Swahili became a useful tool in moments of social disorder. This state of affairs has not changed up today.

The second favorable factor to the expansion of Swahili was the construction of the East-African railway network. If all the engineers came from Britain, hundreds of junior technicians came from India, Pakistan, Arabia and South Africa, while thousands of manual laborers were recruited from all the tribes of the Great Lakes, Sudan and Egypt. The only common language that was learned by all these workers was Swahili. After the construction of the railway, these people remained in East-Africa. Most of them joined the agro-industrial and commercial sectors of the colonies where Swahili was the key language of communication.

The third and perhaps the most important favorable factor for the expansion of Swahili was the industrialization and the urbanization of the Great Lakes region. Whether in the mining industries in Congo and Uganda, whether in the agro-industries of Uganda and Kenya, new job opportunities caused the displacement of millions of people from the rural areas to the new growing cities. Examples of this are Nairobi in Kenya, Jinja in Uganda, Lubumbashi, and Kisangani in the Congo. In all of these areas Swahili proved to be the most useful language, since it permitted workers to move from town to town without linguistic embarrassment.

The first factor that did not favor the spread of Swahili was the British colonial policy of Indirect Rule, applied in some areas of the colonies. By this system the various tribes were each ruled directly by their chiefs under the distant supervision of the British governor. This system favored tribal autonomy and isolation that gave little room for Swahili outside the main urban areas. This was very pronounced in Buganda, Rwanda and other Kingdom areas.

The second hostile factor was the status accorded to English, French and Portuguese in this region. These European languages were considered to be the key to social success. If one did not speak them, one was considered uneducated and could therefore not have access to certain high social positions. Hence the formal education system aimed at the mastery of these European languages. Swahili was not taught beyond the primary school level, if it was taught at all. Since Swahili was not taught as systematically as English, French and Portuguese, people learned Swahili on the streets, mixed it up with local languages, causing it in many cases to deteriorate. As a result, one found Ugandan Swahili different from Congolese Swahili probably different from Mozambican Swahili, all of them different from the standard Swahili spoken in Dar-es-salaam. The development of these new local dialects was going to be a serious impediment to the spread of standard Swahili.


C. Swahili since independence (1965 - 2000)

Since the mid-1960s, when most countries obtained political independence, Swahili has faced three favorable and two unfavorable factors. The three favorable factors are pride in African identity, political instability and war, as well as the international recognition of Swahili. The two unfavorable factors are the collapse of African economies and the globalization syndrome.

Despite all the praises poured upon the former colonial languages as unifying factors in ethnically divided countries and despite the high status accorded to these colonial languages, many leading intellectuals were convinced that African languages are an essential component of African identify and that everything should be done to keep those languages that can be kept. From this moment Swahili has become the most respectable language in the area, because of its ethnic neutrality and widespread use. Many people of the elite were no longer ashamed to learn and study Swahili in the universities of East-Africa. And almost every radio broadcasting station has begun to use Swahili in a number of programs.

The second favorable factor is a consequence of the first. East-African states are proud of their common Africa language. Many international broadcasting services have at least one Swahili newscast every day. The most striking examples are those of the BBC and the Voice of America, which give more than three daily broadcasts. In the same light, many American, European, Asian and African universities teach Swahili in one form or another.

The third favorable factor to the expansion of Swahili is paradoxically a negative one for humanity. Since the late 195Os, even before independence, the Great Lakes region with its neighbors has been very politically unstable. No country in the region has been spared from this phenomenon. Millions of soldiers and refugees have moved from one ethnic area to another and even from one country to another. No country in the region has been spared from this phenomenon. The first consequence of this is that the disruption of ethnic cohesion favors the extension of Swahili. The majority of Ugandans who speak Swahili today belong to this category. The second consequence is that Swahili is spreading to new areas in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo, Sudan and Somalia.

The first unfavorable factor is that of the collapse of African economies. Most African countries have been hit by an economic crisis, which leaves no funds available for projects like the development of a new educational system involving the development of a new language of education. It seems cheaper to stick to the old system left by the former colonial masters.

The second unfavorable factor is that of globalization. In the perspective of globalization, English and French tend to occupy a major place leaving almost no room for smaller languages like Swahili. In this case all intellectuals who want to avoid marginalization are attracted by the larger international languages and not by Swahili. The Swahili-speaking Great Lakes region is no longer viewed as an autonomous entity but as a mere particle of the world, dominated by English and French.


D. Swahili after the year 2000

The future of Swahili is a question of speculation. The Great Lakes region is still very unstable politically, just as it was in the early sixties. This situation is likely to continue for the next 20 or 30 years. Millions of people will continue to be displaced and this will simply render Swahili more and more indispensable for the survival of the people. But due to the globalization and the already international status of French and English, Swahili will still be a second language among the elite, whose minds are directed towards Washington, London and Paris. The common man will use Swahili more and more, while the rulers will still use English and French. I can see the gradual weakening of the local languages and the gradual growth of Swahili to replace them but not yet to replace the former colonial languages. The end result is likely to be that of a systematic bilingualism of the type Swahili/English, Swahili/French, Swahili/Portuguese, etc.

© John C. Ogwana (Yaounde)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.11

Map of Eastern Africa; showing the main places and dialects noted in the text. [Source: Whiteley Wilfred 1969]


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For quotation purposes:
John C. Ogwana: Swahili Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Factors of Its Development and Expansion. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 11/2001.

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